… until it changes what we think and who we are.
I read this statement in a book titled Running from Safety by Richard Bach. It conveys very well what I experience at meditation retreats time and again. Since my first vipassana retreat (as taught by S.N. Goenka) I have refrained from unveiling what’s actually going on there. There are already enough testimonials on YouTube, I thought.
Another reason I hesitated was that up til now I was not at all sure what to write and what to omit. Trying to jot down an insight or rather its verbalized form does not necessarily contribute to a deeper understanding. Instead, it might create expectations and thus, disappointments which in turn are prone to create confusion. The motivation to write arises partly out of an anxiety, namely to forget, when in fact insights are by their very nature only accessible to memory in a limited sense. Insight changes my ideas, views, habits, priorities, behavior. If it is truly experiential insight, i.e. bhavana-maya paññā, it has the power to change the way I perceive myself and the world, it changes my reality altogether, in one word, it has an impact on how I live my life.
As Sayadaw U Tejaniya puts it:
“The account of someone describing certain experiences leading up to an insight and the actual insight itself are two fundamentally different things… You can express the effect an insight has on you or the experiences’around’ it but not the depth of understanding you gain through the insight.”
That pretty much sums it up and may serve as a brief rationale for why it took a while to write about it.
Regarding the ‘setting’, the timetable is clear. You get up early and you go to bed early. No food after noon. Every participant has to observe the precepts. This includes keeping Noble silence at all times. So far as the framework is concerned, it seems quite clear.
Now, what about the inner turmoils, the questions that arise, the internal storms within the external quietude? Of course, one wants to know what one is getting oneself into. My intention is to make it a little bit easier for anyone to be prepared for such a workshop and also to encourage you, dear reader, to go ahead and apply for a course. It’s well worth your time and energy. What’s more, you will find this investment is going to leave you with all the time in the world, and an entirely new form of NRG which gives you a fresh perspective on what really matters.
The first thing I notice is how agitated my mind is. Usually that fact goes unnoticed. I only react to the agitation. Come to think of it, I do not become aware of it right away during the first day. Rather, it happens on the second and third day. Why? Because the mind is so beleaguered by thoughts there is not enough room to realise: “Wow! I can’t even do such a simple practice as observing respiration for one hot minute. I get distracted so easily.” There is no room for that recognition, let alone the ability to be relaxed about the fact. Over time, the mind has become so entangled in its own magick that there is no way of noting the in-breath as in-breath and the out-breath as out-breath. It can be quite a humbling experience to notice how unstable and capricious the mind is. Hitherto, I thought it is my mind. I ought to have control over it. Now I am embarrassed to see I am not at all in charge.
Also, questions arise: “Why am I doing this? What is that supposed to do? What is it good for?” It is only later that the results present themselves in a most extraordinary way.
After a while it becomes clearer and clearer that this simple (but not easy) practice is a preliminary for vipassana. In order to calm the mind down, it is essential to find an object that is sufficiently stable, like the breath, and stay with it. On the second day I notice that I am trying too hard. In the evening, I am quite hungry.
Also due to the Goenkaji’s evening dhamma talks critical thoughts come up:
This being my fifth or sixth retreat in the Goenka tradition, it becomes obvious how strong the emphasis is on ‘washing out defilements’ and on ‘eradicating impurities’. It is presented in an apodictic manner. It seems to me that the man who emphasized the teachings to be ‘non-sectarian’ and ‘non-dogmatic’ is actually followed by a sect-like entourage propagating strict adherence to his so-called ‘non-sectarian’ teaching.
Then again, I reflect and ponder:
Am I critical about the teachers while in fact it is rather the followers who are worthy of critique because they interpret Buddha-Dhamma in a certain way? Can I really hold a teacher responsible for the structural setting his followers established?
Currently I am reading Bowker’s recommendable anthology (see below “Sources”). He investigates the history of Marx’s ideas, too, and finds that they were corrupted by tyrants to become an ideology but that there were passages in his writings that could foster ruthless aggression towards reactionaries and the belief that the ends justify the means. Same goes for Christianity which started with the message of love and freedom and was instrumentalized to instill guilt into the hearts of the people. First the Christians suffered from prosecution and then they prosecuted and burnt those who were later titled martyrs. So from that perspective innaway I dig Goenkaji’s worries about the Dhamma being diluted or misrepresented but in his sayings these interpretations were already implicated.
Thus, it is clear that Day 2 is kind of a dhamma-vicaya day.
Goenkaji repeats again and again: “Continue to work. Patiently and persistently. Patiently and persistently.”
As with every other skill you just have to practice, man, for hours and hours just practice. After a group sitting suddenly a thought I’d had long ago once again resurfaces: Now at least I know enlightenment doesn’t exist, so I can relax. Endowing this thought with some credibility, the next few sittings go pretty smooth. A relaxed breath is an easy breath. Later, I feel energy arising naturally and sit extended periods. Even so, there is still a lot of pain when I try to sit for one hour without moving a muscle. Also, a slight headache visits me. In my mind, I crack a joke to myself: “Better headache than heartache. Take it easy, Kimo.” My smile turns the headache into something else not quite so disturbing.
Theoretical questions don’t bother me so much anymore. Even though, I have an interview with the assistance teacher to ask him if Goenka was a Buddha. No, he says, a bodhisattva with a lot of ‘mettā power’. It becomes clear that awakening is a gradual process, so I also ask a question about sudden awakening, “what about Mooji and Tolle?”, but alas, he only explains method and lineage of Goenkaji.
During Goenkaji’s dharma talk this evening I heard him sing ‘Happy Birthday to yuuu’ with more than 100 people around not knowing that it is actually my continuation day. I am aware that I am another year closer to the cemetery 😉 It was only after the course that I realized it was the day before that: Day 2 of the retreat. Funny dat.
Bowker, John: Problems of Suffering in Religions of the World
Richard Bach: Running from Safety
Sayadaw U Tejaniya: Don’t look down on the defilements. They will laugh at you